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Press Confidentiality

 article about reporter
2004-08-20
Last week, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan in Washington held Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in contempt as part of the investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. This week, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson found five reporters in contempt of court for refusing to reveal their sources during their reporting of the Wen Ho Lee case. Both cases set privacy rights and national security against the confidentiality of the free press.

Globally, media advocacy groups have condemned these two recent decisions. These are not the first instances when reporters were compelled by courts to reveal their sources. We must reexamine the protocols and rules of such confidentiality.

First, lets make it clear, press confidentiality and the First Amendment are not blank checks for reporters to say or not say anything they want. If a murderer told a reporter his intentions about plans tomurder people, the reporter cannot claim confidentiality, regardless of what he/she promised that murderer. To do so qualifies as a felony crime for reason of willful indifference, that is endangering public safety by withholding information.

Thus a reporter cannot and should not ethically protect criminals, when the transmission of information is related to the occurrence of a crime, ie. a murder. The same goes for the case of Valerie Plame, where it is obvious that a government official has leaked the identity of a CIA officer to public in violation of past national security laws, and the case of Wen Ho Lee, where it is also obvious that a government official has leaked the identity of the prime suspect in violation of privacy and national security laws.

Some have argued that these two are not really crimes. But I say, that is for the courts to decide. If the courts find these two are not really crimes, then those reporters have nothing to worry about. But if the courts find those are crimes, then the reporters should reveal their sources, or they are in collusion with criminals or guilty of giving aid to criminals.

These are precedents of laws from past court rulings.

Where confidentiality HAS applied effectively for the reporters, such as in the Watergate Scandal, the secret information was not classified in any way, ie. that the top Nixon officials engaged in illegal use of government authority to spy on and smear political opponents, and even committing theft. It was not a crime for Deep Throat to reveal such information to the reporters, but rather it was politically and personally inconvenient for the source to reveal his/her identity.

In that case, Judges/courts have no reason to compel the reporter to reveal their sources.

What reporters should remember, is that they have ethical responsibilities FIRST and ABOVE all else to the TRUTH. And the TRUTH in the case of Valeria Plame and Wen Ho Lee is that reporters should not protect the confidentiality sources who violated the lawful confidentiality of third party citizens.

When a government official violates the lawful privacy and confidentiality of a citizen or the government, thats simply a crime, nothing less, nothing more. Lawful privacy and confidentiality are defined as secrets that any lawful citizens would expect to be protected as secrets for themselves.

Another thing about TRUTH in media is that the Truth must be able to stand up to public scrutiny, otherwise its rumors. While some rumors lead to truths, after much more investigation and exposure of facts, many rumors remain tabloid news, unsubstantiated, designed to sensationalize and commercialize rather than tell the truth.

Whistleblowers do come out, as we have witnessed many after Enron and 9/11, to expose the truth. And many of them do not hide behind confidentiality.

At the same time, Government is learning to use the media to persecute political enemies by illegally using secret information.

The Media advocacy groups have argued that to compel the reporters to reveal their sources, it would hurt media freedom, that future whistleblowers will be much less likely to reveal government secrets to the reporters. I do not agree in these two cases.

Beyond everything else, the fundamental conflicts of these cases are ethical conflicts in the reporters themselves. And it is the reporters themselves who have violated the confidentiality already.

For Valerie Plame and Wen Ho Lee, their confidentiality was violated by the reporters who outed them very publicly, printed secrets about them at the behest of government officials for political reasons. Valerie Plame and Wen Ho Lee are the ultimate sources of the information, information that deserved to be protected.

When presented with confidentiality of Valerie Plame/Wen Ho Lee vs. the confidentiality of the unknown/unnamed government officials, the reporters chose to violate 1 and protect the other. This is fundamentally unethical, and destroys the reporters objectivity.

I argue, this is nothing new, and these reporters are not protected by confidentiality as they have violated confidentiality of some already. They cannot hide behind the shield of ethical practice of media when the same ethics never even crossed their minds when they violated the privacy of Valerie Plame and Wen Ho Lee.



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